Patriots

Last of his kind? It’ll be a while before we see another Gronk

Last of his kind? It’ll be a while before we see another Gronk

ATLANTA -- The week leading up to the Super Bowl is often a time when a lot of ink, a lot of air and a lot of Internet space is spent on the topic of legacy. 

Lord knows, we’ve done our fair share, such as this and this. 

Rob Gronkowski’s legacy is among the most fascinating of a historically fascinating group, and it’s worth considering given that the potential for retirement — and Super Bowl LIII being his final game — looms. 

He is, without a doubt, the greatest tight end of his era. The story of the NFL can hardly be told without referencing his dominance over the better part of the past decade. 

Still, did he change the game? Whenever he does retire, will we be able to look at the state of his position and say that it was drastically altered because of him?

The fact that it’s hard to say may speak to just how unique Gronkowski is. Could he truly change the game if his skill set is nearly impossible to replicate?

Patriots right end Stephen Anderson, 26, has watched Gronkowski for years and likes to define himself as a hybrid player at his position. Like Gronkowski, he feels as though he can play in the run and pass games. It’s the level to which Gronkowski does both, though, that makes him unique. 

“You have tight ends these days that are mainly receivers. You have tight ends that are mainly blockers,” Anderson said. “But when he came into the league, even though it was trending towards more receivers, like Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz — he is the last of the old-school tight ends that can do both. 

“He's one that not only does both but does it at top-of-the-league levels. Running routes. Catching. Blocking. There's not too many tight ends in the game that have that skill set that are the best in the league as a tight end. Just watching that, watching that at this point in his career is really amazing. The catches he makes, the blocks he makes, his football IQ and savvy. It’s really fun watching and learning from him.”

And Anderson has caught Gronkowski on a relatively down year. He’s dealt with back and ankle issues off and on throughout the season and didn’t approach the statistical heights he did when he was a First Team All-Pro in 2017 for the fourth time. 

Yet he’s been part of what has driven the Patriots offensively even as his receiving prowess has been diminished in spurts. As the Patriots have morphed into more of a run-heavy offense, Gronkowski has arguably been their best blocker on a team that features powerful run-game players in Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown. 

“I think that's what makes him him,” swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle said. “That's what makes him Gronk. Hell of a player. He can put his hand in the dirt and mix it up with guys. Obviously, he catches a lot of passes and makes some plays like that too. There's not a whole bunch of guys in this league that can do that. That just shows you how much work he puts in and how good he's been throughout his career. 

“I think of him as a glorified O-lineman. Obviously, he's a little more athletic than us, but he'll definitely mix it up. We definitely enjoy and appreciate guys laying it on the line just like we do every play.”

“He’s such a dynamic all-around tight end,” James Develin said. “He can block. He can run routes. He's good with the ball in his hands. Will there be another one? I don't know.“

There are tight ends in the league with Gronkowski’s frame. There are tight ends in the league who are faster. There are tight ends in the league with tremendous hands. But Gronkowski, even now in his ninth season, still possesses a rare blend of those qualities. 

Teammates agreed he’s rare enough that even if there will someday be another player with a similar skill set, it’s not happening any time soon. 

“I mean, I feel like you watch high school sports, these kids are way better athletes than guys like me born in the late-80s,” Devin McCourty said. “I wouldn't be surprised just seeing how athletic guys are and what they're able to do. Look at big Trent [Brown] on our team. He showed us a video back during the season of him doing dunks and stuff...I wouldn't be surprised [to see another Gronk type]. But it might take a while. He's a pretty good player.”

“I hope not, [but] there probably will be,” Kyle Van Noy said. “I think more players are in college starting to be more like him. He's kind of changed the game. He's one of a kind though. I don’t think you'll see someone as energetic and humorous as that guy. He can light up a room.”

“I can't predict the future,” Develin said. “The game is kind of always evolving and taking different paths. But just as a person alone, I don't know if you're ever going to find another Gronk. He's just such a fun guy to be around, a fun guy to work with. I'm really happy I've been able to work with him the past seven years.”

Though it’s unclear Gronkowski himself has been a catalyst for the changing nature of the position. Again, his individual talents make that hard to gauge. But there’s no denying the position has changed. He’s seen it. He’s been a part of that change, and he’s executed the varied receiving responsibilities that now accompany the modern tight end role as well as anyone. 

“Since I was a rookie til now, the tight end position has evolved a little bit,” he said this week. “In that case, I mean players splitting out wide, tight ends splitting out in the slot, tight ends going one-on-one outside. Back in the heyday you really didn't see that that much. They were always lined up in the backfield or on the wing. To see tight ends now be able to line up all over the field, it's definitely changed the game.”

Gronkowski looked as healthy as he’s looked since Week 1 back in the AFC title game and his myriad abilities could very well be on display once again against the Rams. If the Patriots want to run out of heavy packages, he can move bodies at the point of attack. If they want to run him down the seam to stress Wade Phillips’ single-high safety coverages, he’ll garner significant attention. If LA plays man-to-man, the Patriots could use Gronkowski’s size outside the numbers to win jump balls against linebackers or safeties. 

“To me, he has made me the player I am,” Patrick Chung said. “I get to go against him every day for the last eight, nine years. So, he’s definitely made me better, period. So, I actually need to thank him. Personally, that’s how I feel about him. And we’ve been grinding it out. There are days we don’t want to grind it out, and we’re going to grind it out. So, much love to him. Thank you.”

“I mean, the guy’s so hard to cover,” McCourty said. “I think a lot of people think of tight ends – so tough in the red area, making plays – but you watch him down the field, crossing routes, catching the ball for five yards, breaking two tackles. 

“I think just the way you look at his off-the-field of grinding through injuries, that’s how he plays. I think it showed up [in Kansas City] when we needed him the most, making big catches, making big plays. I think for me, it’s just cool – every time I’m asked about him, we came in the same year and to watch both of us kind of grow in this organization and become leaders, both be captains at times. You get to kind of be right next to a guy and see him grow, and obviously for me to watch what he’s been able to, best tight end in football for years. That’s not easy to do.” 

It’s why there may not be another like him.

“I don't know,” Rex Burkhead said. “It's gonna be tough. I've never seen anyone as big as he is run as well as he can and with the hands he has. You've seen him make some unbelievable one-handed catches, catches it right off the turf as well. And he's 6-foot-8. It's impressive. Unbelievable player. the best tight end I've ever seen.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

As much as we'd love to talk football, it has taken a back seat to the conversations that need to be had about George Floyd's murder and the racial injustices that remain prevalent in the United States.

The "Black Lives Matter" movement has spread across the country with protests advocating for justice and racial equality. It has impacted the world of sports, with countless athletes using their platforms to let their voices be heard. NFL players even sent a strong message to the league with a video stating what they wanted to hear it say regarding the oppression of African Americans.

Click here to enter NBC Sports Boston’s Podcast Sweepstakes for your chance to win a desktop Bluetooth speaker/microphone!

On a brand new episode of the Next Pats Podcast, New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater joined Phil Perry to discuss the state of the nation.

Listen and subscribe to the Next Pats Podcast:

Slater covered a variety of important topics in the episode. But one that particularly stood out was his explanation of how if the country operated like an NFL locker room, it would be a more inclusive place.

"It is a very unique place. A locker room setting -- you know, if our country operated and moved like a locker room, man it would be a beautiful thing," Slater said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying we've got it all figured out, but what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature to work toward a common goal.

"And there's automatic respect that comes with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet, and you're one of us. So I'm appreciative of that and I think now is a time for us to maybe forge those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and maybe experience this from their teammates have a different appreciation for why that guy is the way he is, why he does the things that he does. And I think ultimately that's going to lead to deeper and more fruitful relationships."

If anyone knows what a healthy, inclusive locker room environment looks like, it's Slater. The 34-year-old has been a captain for the Patriots for nearly a decade and has been an admirable leader throughout his stellar NFL career.

Slater also discussed how head coach Bill Belichick has been involved in the team's discussions about recent events, his experiences living as a black man in America, and much more.

Check out more of the Next Pats Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or watch on YouTube below:

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

What if? What if Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement just a few days sooner, allowing the Patriots to make a legitimate play for free agent Jared Cook? 

By the time the man who is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history decided to hang 'em up (briefly), Cook was already making plans to join the Saints. He ended up eighth among tight ends with 705 receiving yards and second with nine touchdowns.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

Meanwhile the Patriots were left to piece together that spot with the likes of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo.

Reluctant to invest in young players at the position since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — since then they'd only drafted Izzo (2018, seventh round), Lee Smith (2011, fifth round) and A.J. Derby (2015, sixth round) — the Patriots had arguably the least-productive tight end group in the NFL last season: 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.

They've attempted to remedy that situation. In this year's draft, they traded up to land two intriguing talents in the third round.

UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a do-it-all player with the size to move people on the line of scrimmage and the body control to draw comparisons to some of the game's elites at that position. Dalton Keene is an athletic option with experience playing out of the backfield at Virginia Tech who could be the key to unlocking snap-to-snap unpredictability for Josh McDaniels' personnel packages.

Do they enter the equation as the immediate No. 1 and 2 options there? Let's reset the depth chart.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Asiasi. Keene. That's it. Those are the locks. Given the output, it should come as no surprise that there's not a player from last year's roster who comes into this season guaranteed to have a regular-season role. 

ON THE BUBBLE

LaCosse makes sense here. He could potentially end up on the roster as a 2020 version of Alge Crumpler — a veteran who can help guide two promising rookies — because his experience level dwarfs that of others on the depth chart.

However, his experience level isn't exactly overwhelming (33 career games). If he can't stay healthy, as was the case last season, or can't win a job, he'd save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap if released in camp.

Listen and subscribe to the Next Pats Podcast:

LONG SHOTS

Izzo will have to open eyes in camp or become a special teams staple in order to have a chance to make an impact. Though he showed flashes of being a capable receiver last season, that part of his game was lacking consistency. As a blocker? It was there that he was thought to be a potential contributor when drafted out of Florida State two years ago. But according to Pro Football Focus, his 44.9 run-blocking grade was second-lowest among all players at the position in 2019.

Undrafted rookies Jake Burt from Boston College and Rashod Berry from Ohio State also have to be considered in this category. Burt looks like an in-line option at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Berry actually played both on the defensive line and at tight end as a senior. He finished his career with 17 receptions. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

In what was considered a tight end class short on game-changing talent, Asiasi might've been the most gifted. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in the draft, going off the board in the second round as the "safest" of this year's tight end crop, according to several evaluators. But when it comes to physical ability? Asiasi can "do it all," one tight ends coach told me.

Some questions about Asiasi's makeup lingered into draft weekend, helping him stay undrafted through almost three full rounds, but the Patriots may have found themselves a steal if Asiasi can make good on his on-the-field promise. Asiasi's trainer Dave Spitz, who has also worked with Browns tight end Austin Hooper and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, spoke to NBC Sports Boston earlier this offseason.

"He has the catch radius of Austin," Spitz said. "He has the body control and awareness of Zach. And he, I think, has more bend, more wiggle, than both of them. He's a beautiful combination."

X-FACTOR

Asiasi might be the most talented addition the Patriots have made at this position in years, but Keene's versatility makes him an interesting queen-on-the-chess-board piece for Bill Belichick and McDaniels. He has enough size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to play in-line as a "Y" tight end. He has the movement skills to serve as more of an "F" option. He's played in the backfield before. He's served as a lead-blocker like a fullback. There are a variety of ways in which he can be deployed.

Why does that matter? Perhaps the Patriots want to use their 12-personnel package with one back and two tight ends. Perhaps, because tight ends are oftentimes glorified receivers these days, a defense will respond to that two-tight end set by matching it with an extra safety instead of a linebacker. If that's the case, Keene could flex in as a fullback and the Patriots could run a 21-personnel look at a lighter defense for an advantage. If the defense keeps linebackers on the field to check Asiasi and/or Keene, the Patriots could use them in the passing game where their athleticism should give them an advantage over a traditional second-level defender. Options.

That's what Keene provides, making him an X-factor in the truest sense if he can handle a wide range of alignments and responsibilities early in his career.